The First & Last Book In The World

It’s not a Klosterman hypothetical, but I was asked this by a student the other day:

If you could only save one book in the world from destruction, what book would you choose?

A dire situation, don’t you think? I certainly hope it never comes to this. And yet the question has an undeniable allure. The question isn’t really the same as “what is the best book of all time,” or “what is your favorite book of all time.” You have to consider the fact that this book is all that humanity will have to start over with. Twilight might be your personal favorite, but you’ve got to pick with posterity in mind, for God’s sake! This is going to be the seed of all future literature.

There’s one technicality let’s get out of the way immediately: many, if not all, of the books worth inclusion in this conversation are already stored digitally in one place or another, rendering the question of whether a physical copy survives more or less moot. Therefore, for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll assume that no physical data storage survives–including books, hard disks, CDs, anything–except the vessel of your choice. (We can’t pick the Encyclopedia Britannica because it is multi-volume.)

Literature? you might ask. What about the sciences! The sum total of human knowledge! The compendium of academic endeavors!

Yes, I can imagine that, in the face of whatever apocalyptic force has caused the near-total destruction of literary achievement, it would be useful to have science on our side. Should some scientific subfield be particularly relevant to fighting this malevolent force, I would of course yield to choose a seminal text from that subfield. Perhaps anti-book aliens are attacking and we believe there is some microbiological weakness of theirs that we can exploit, and hence I save a book on biological weapons delivery systems. But let’s assume the force of destruction is general and nonspecific, the erasure of books is totally anonymous and non-reversable, it just happens.

But is still a central reason why I would be less than likely to choose a scientific text. Sciences are currently at their most advanced, correct? Then is it not reasonable to say that the mental knowledge of the collected experts in a given field is greater than the knowledge collected in any given bound text? Take the question of trigonometric tables. Without trigonometric tables–the calculated values of sine and cosine, etc–many applications would fall apart. But! Even if we don’t have trigonometric tables memorized, thousands of people would be able to recall the basic maths concepts that would allow us to quickly reconstruct such a table. Because concepts are more important than specific wording in science, it seems even more likely that the wild majority of the important data in science–the concepts–could be retained. It is true that the evidence–the raw observations, recorded in so many lab notebooks–might be gone, but if the concepts are correct, then the observations can be observed once again (it’s the books that are going away, not the fundamental forces of physics).

I’m banking on the idea that scientists would have no trouble remembering their concepts and would not mind rewriting their texts.

That leaves us with literature. Oh, literature.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned above, anything likely to be memorized is out. That means the Quran, for example, is out. So are the works of Shakespeare–somewhere in the world, at any given moment, there is a theater company performing Titus Andronicus. A quick Web search reveals that there are plenty of people who memorize portions of the Bible, but few if any who actually have the whole thing down–still, the original is a patchwork quilt, so it could be made anew in the same way.

The ideal candidate for preservation would have to be evaluated on the following characteristics:

  • beauty;
  • a beneficent impression upon the new society;
  • inclusivity (a larger text is likely to contain within it many more stories, and hence more capacity for impact, than a shorter text)

Emily Dickinson’s poems would score well in the first criterion; Peter Singer’s Ethics, in the second; and Aesop’s Fables well on the third.

With those things in mind, I came up with the following (inexhaustive) list of candidates:

  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
  • John Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • MLK’s collected works
  • Thoreau’s Walden
  • Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (I love The Possessed and Crime & Punishment, but both are too contemporary and political; we want something with timeless themes)
  • the Mahabharata (picked over the Ramayana, which from what I know of it is a bit more essentialist, concerned with doing the duty of your particular station in life, which is too conservative for my taste, but hey, the Metamorphoses could probably be accused of the same thing, so if you want to put it on the list, go ahead)
  • Melville’s Moby Dick (which I haven’t read, but from what I know seems like it might fit our criteria)
  • Bernard Williams’ Ethics & the Limits of Philosophy
  • the Odyssey (over the Illiad, which is more war-focused)
  • Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations
  • I don’t know enough about Chinese or East Asian literature to venture a guess at whether anything would work well here, though I’m sure there must be candidates
  • An anthology of some sort, for example, The Oxford Book of Modern Poetry, or something like that; this may be cheating, though, depending on how you read things. This would probably be the best choice unless you decided it wasn’t allowed by the spirit of the question.

I don’t know what I would pick. Do you?





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